Media Review: Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture

Today’s media review is about Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith (text & photographs) and John C. Goss (photographs) (ISBN: 978-6167339375). The 2nd edition of this book was published in 2013 by River Books Co., Ltd. Bangkok, Thailand. Compared to the 1st edition from 2005, the 2nd edition has been expanded and fully updated comprising 209 new photos, 64 more pages and four extra chapters. The book is in English language, comprises 320 pages and 590 colour photos, hardcover. It costs 995 Bath, on Amazon the book is about 22 EUR.

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture

'Very Thai', cover of the 2nd edition 2013

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, cover of the 2nd edition 2013

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith & John Goss (photographs) can be regarded as a very influential best-selling guide to Thai pop culture and street life. The 2nd edition has been revised to reflect the dramatic changes in Thailand.

The British author Philip Cornwel-Smith has been living in Bangkok since 1994. He is the founding editor of Bangkok’s first international-standard city listings magazine called ‘Bangkok Metro’. Furthermore, he has written for various international media concerning Thailand. A few examples of his works are guidebooks like ‘Eyewitness Thailand’, ‘Thailand: A Traveller’s Companion’, ‘Lonely Planet’s World Food: Thailand’ and ‘Time Out Bangkok’.

‘Very Thai’ can be described as a book reflecting modern Thai consciousness which may also be referred to as ‘Thainess’. In an amusing manner, the work gets to the bottom of what makes something ‘very Thai’. The books starts off with a a preface by Alex Kerr who is also the author of ‘Bangkok Found’. Next follows an introduction addressing the central question of what makes something ‘very Thai’ and explaining how the 2nd edition differs from the 1st one. In this context, the author points out that the new edition records how Thailand has changed since ‘Very Thai’ was launched a decade ago.

What could be more Thai than a farang in a Tuk-Tuk? (photo credit: Very Thai, FB page)

What could be more Thai than a farang in a Tuk-Tuk? (photo credit: Very Thai, FB page)

Hence, ‘Very Thai’ has five chapters which are divided into several sections. The chapters are about ‘Street’, ‘Personal’, ‘Ritual’, ‘Sanuk’ and ‘Thainess’.

The chapter ‘Street’ is concerned with streetlife in Thailand. Thus, it covers topics like street food ranging from drinks in bags to insect snacks. It also deals with common sights on Thai streets like different kinds of vendors, soi animals, blind musicians, tangled wires and trash recyclers. What is more, ‘Street’ is also about the different and sometimes funny and amusing means of transportation on Thai streets ranging from Tuk-tuks to floral truck bolts and colourful bus art.

Amusing way of Thai transportation (photo credit:

Amusing way of Thai transportation (photo credit: Les Wilk,

‘Personal’ reveals a lot about Thai mentality and lifestyle. For instance, this chapter addresses themes like male and female grooming habits, nicknames, high society (Hi So) and the delight in dressing alike in uniforms. What is more, there is also a section about the ‘Katoey, Gay & Tom-Dee’ community. However, it also addresses other topics like potted gardens, portable plants for luck and lifestyle, and the urban Thai dream in form of malls, theme parks and the suburb.

Bangkok as a World City & the urban Thai dream

Bangkok as a World City & the urban Thai dream (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram@knack66)

As the title of the chapter ‘Ritual’ suggests it is all about Thai traditional rituals and culture. For instance, the author explains the use and meaning of royal portraits in establishing the Thai sense of identity. He further explains that the days are colour coded in Thailand, and that lucky numbers dictate prices. The sections about ‘Amulet Collectors’, ‘Trade Talismans’, ‘Taxi Altars’, ‘Fortune Tellers’, ‘Ghosts Stories’ and ‘Mediums & Shamans’ are all concerned with superstition and animist beliefs in Thai culture. Thus, the author is also concerned with ‘Magical Tattoos’, which we know as Sak Yant, entrancing the wearer.

Tattooed Monk of Wat Bang Pra (photo credit

Tattooed monk of Wat Bang Pra (photo credit:

‘Sanuk’ (Fun) is very important in Thai culture. Thus, this chapter is about ‘sanuk’ activities like temple fairs, festivals, gambling and animal contests like cock fighting. In addition, there is also Muay Thai, different kinds of beauty contests, celebrities, comedy and soap operas that make Thai life fun. What is more, it also mentions the importance of Thai folk-blues (‘Songs for Life), Thai country music (luuk thung) and the Thai independence music scene which produces ‘Songs for Lifestyle’.

The final section ‘Thainess’ is the new chapter in this book. It is about ‘Vernacular Design’, ‘Contemporary Thainess’, the rise of ‘Thai Thai’ retro culture and an afterword concerning the ‘Role of Very Thai’ by Pracha Suveeranont who is an expert on visual culture.

In my view, Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture is an amazing and amusing read providing profound insight into Thai mentality, pop culture and street life. Mixed with presenting some oddities in Thai culture and tradition, this guide is truly fun and cool to read 🙂 In fact, the book itself is cult! I can highly recommend it to everyone interested in modern Thai culture and Thainess in particular.

Yours, Sirinya

John Thomson: Pictures of Old Siam

“His [Thomson’s] photographic style can be perceived from the beauty of his works. Back then when all he had was natural light, he still managed to get the beautiful photographs”

(Paisarn Piemmettawat, the exhibition’s organizer’s assistant)

John Thomson: the crown prince of Siam (Rama V)

John Thomson photography: the crown prince of Siam (Rama V)

John Thomson Photography

Recently I’ve come across an interesting article in the Bangkok Post. It is about a photo exhibition of the Scot J. Thomson, born in 1837, who was one of the first photographers in the Far East.

young Siamese prince

A young Siamese prince

The National Gallery on Chao Fah Road in Bangkok now shows 60 of Thomson’s black and white photos of old Siam. These photos were taken in 1865 – 1866. The exhibition is called “Siam Through The Lens Of John Thomson”. It started on 10. January and runs until 28. February 2015. You have free entry to this exhibition.

Siamese nobleman Racha Chaya

Siamese nobleman Racha Chaya

The photographer arrived in Bangkok on 28. September 1865. Thus, the exhibition marks the 150th year since his arrival in Siam.

Siamese Buddhist bonze.

Portrait of a Siamese monk, 1865

While staying in Siam after living and travelling some other places in Asia like Ceylon and Malaysia, Thomson took photos of the King of Siam, members of the royal court but also of ordinary people. Hence, he also documented village life.

L0055805 Siamese boatman, Siam [Thailand].

A Siamese boatman with his oar.


siamese teenager with topknot

A Siamese youth with traditional topknot

What is special about Thomson is that he was the first (Western) photographer to be allowed into the Grand Palace and to take photos of King Mongkut, Rama IV. The King was very much impressed with his skill of taking photos.


King Mongkut, Rama IV, in European attire, 1865


L0055542 The 1st King of Siam, King Mongkut, in state robes, Bangkok

King Monkut in traditional Thai attire and regalia of royalty, 1865

Hence, there is a very special picture of a procession taken in front of Wat Pho because the situation was that the King called everyone to stay still so that Thomson could take photos of this event. In fact, this is a rare picture of a historical moment that displays the greatness of Thai tradition.

king of siam and procession

The king and his procession in front of Wat Pho

What is more, Thomson also took photos of the city of Bangkok and Ayutthaya.

the chao phraya river as seen from the main spire of Wat Arun

The Chaophraya river viewed from Wat Arun


The pictures in this post are all taken from the Wellcome Library, London. They also have more photos of Thomson’s travel to other parts of East Asia.

Well, the exhibition is over but there is now a new book called ‘Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson’ published by River Books. If you are interested in history, old Siam and John Thomson’s photography, I strongly recommend you check out this work 🙂

Yours, Sirinya